Does religion really work? I’m using the word “work” in the most pragmatic sense. Is there a measurable way of proving that people of faith live longer, live better, have better marriages, are financially successful, have fewer problems with their children, are free from drugs and alcohol, and never lose their temper and hurt other people. Does it work?
Well, it turns out it might.
A new book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, written by University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, claims men who regularly attend church are less likely to abuse their spouses than men who do not regularly attend church.
Wilcox conducted his study among evangelical husbands beginning in the 1990s. Citing data from the National Survey of Families and Households Wilcox notes that among men not “active” in church, more than 7 percent of them have committed some form of domestic violence. Among men who are active in church, however, the percentage drops to less than 3 percent.
The key ingredient here is “active participation.” By active Wilcox means regular church attendance. Active means commitment to the religious community. Wilcox believes that religious communities create a special culture that has a formative effect on the men who participate in the community. Male peer groups within the culture of the faith community serve to “domesticate” men. These domesticated men are more sensitive to the emotional needs of their wives and children and thus less likely to commit violence against them.
So how does this happen? What is it about religion that works? Is it the doctrinal teaching of a faith group that makes it effective? Is it only groups that believe in Jesus, or only believe certain things about Jesus that see positive effects in the lives of its members? Is it only those churches that foster small groups or that maintain traditional worship styles, or have aggressive outreach programs, or believe in the power of prayer?
What is it that makes religion “work?”
Wilcox’s study points to the significance of the community itself as the formative factor. A faith group that cultivates and maintains a unique identity creates within itself a culture of faith and practice. This culture articulates expectations, upholds certain standards of conduct, and within the community provides a structure for those expectations to be met.
Of course, people who go to church already know all this—that’s why we go! Most folks figure out early on that you only get out of something what you are willing to put it into it.
But there is another piece of this that I don’t want us to rush past too quickly. There is substance to what we do. Our liturgies, our prayers, our disciplines, our ethics can and do have an effect on individuals and on society. But our substance is dependent on our ability to maintain the integrity of our identity as a faith community. Or as the old preachers used to say, we must remember “whose” we are.
There are many forces in our world today that would gladly take what we have and who we are and claim it for their own–particularly as we draw near to election day. Our constant challenge is to resist those who would co-opt our faith for purposes other than the ones we set for ourselves.
We have a unique and important work to do. And apparently, as the faith community does its work faithfully, what we do really works.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.